Winning pair's routine is anything but

Caitlin Yankowskas (R) and John Coughlin skate during the pairs free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, January 29, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Keane (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FIGURE SKATING)
Caitlin Yankowskas (R) and John Coughlin skate during the pairs free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, January 29, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Keane (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FIGURE SKATING) (Chris Keane)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011

GREENSBORO, N.C. - The idea of working through his sadness on the job, of turning the most important program of his skating season into a memorial for his late mother, terrified John Coughlin.

But they made him do it, his partner and coach did. They made him get out on the ice to Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" and express his feelings about the woman who introduced him to skating, combed his hair backstage during his childhood and stood by his side throughout his career until she died last Feb. 24 at age 48.

In the months after her death, neither Coughlin, 25, nor Caitlin Yankowskas, 20, dared to imagine that the emotional tribute would help them win their first U.S. title, as it did Saturday afternoon at packed Greensboro Coliseum. Yankowskas simply hoped it would get Coughlin back on his feet. She never considered it could push them jointly to an upset victory over last year's two U.S. Olympic pairs teams.

But after taking the lead in Thursday's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the couple unveiled the piece that began as therapy but had evolved into something powerful enough to move an entire arena. The two earned the highest score in the long program to claim the gold medal - their first U.S. medal of any color - with 188.45 points, beating last year's silver medal winners, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig (185.22), and 2010 champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett (175.49).

"He is telling me his story, what happened to his mom, and I'm listening to him throughout the program and encouraging him to tell me," Yankowskas said. In the beginning, "We would press 'play' to the music and get maybe three seconds in and we would have to stop. It was just emotionally very difficult."

At the end of their short program Thursday, Coughlin grinned joyously. He and Yankowskas received the top marks for execution, choreography and interpretation. They reveled in a long and loud ovation from the crowd; Coughlin's father sat above, red-eyed and clapping. Only later, during a meeting with reporters, did Couglin break down.

"I did not want to do it at first," he said. "I did not think I'd be able to get through the season, but there was a lot of gentle and not-so-gentle prodding. What I wanted to do was go out and clown around and not acknowledge what happened, but that would have caught up with me at some point. . . . I'm not artistic. I kind of look like a linebacker on the ice sometimes; I know that. They kind of helped me take what I was feeling and put it on the ice."

Coughlin's mother, Stacy Leigh Holmes, a Catholic, died in the middle of the night after a long battle with an undisclosed illness, but the last thing she told her son - he had rushed to her bedside after an international competition in South Korea - was to keep skating. She had been president of his hometown skating club in Kansas City, Mo., and a part-time judge. She was a constant presence at the rink and, he said, "my best friend in skating."

Coughlin and Yankowskas, who are coached by Dalilah Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra, will take the program to the world championships in March in Tokyo. There they will be joined by Ladwig and Evora, who finished 10th at the Winter Games and ninth at last year's worlds.

Before this season, Yankowskas and Coughlin had never finished better than sixth at the U.S. championships or won an international medal of any kind.

"I told myself, no matter what we did today, to go out on the ice and perform that program was going to be a happy moment for me," Coughlin said. "To perform it that way was unbelievable."

Added Coughlin later, his voice quivering: "She was so much skating for me. I think she would be proud that I found out how to keep doing that without her here physically."

Other results: Meryl Davis and Charlie White won their third straight U.S. championship in dance, earning 185.48 to top Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who scored 173.18. Gambrill's Ian Lorello and partner Isabella Cannuscio placed sixth with 136.55; Meredith Zuber and Centreville's Kyle Herring finished ninth (118.06); Vienna's Ginna Hoptman and Pavel Filchenkov were 10th with 117.53; and Katherine Pilgrim and Gambrill's Alex Lorello got 15th with 80.39. . . .

Earlier this week, Rachel and Michael Parsons of Derwood won the gold medal in novice dance (112.82); Chevy Chase's Ross Gudis and Elliana Pogrebinsky were fourth (105.91); Silver Spring's Morgan Grant and Luke Skala earned seventh (94.38). Laura Bonacorsi and Fulton's Travis Mager earned the silver in junior dance (127.39); Germantown's Lorraine McNamara and Wheaton's Quinn Carpenter placed ninth (102.99). Haley Dunne of the Washington Figure Skating Club won eighth in junior ladies (132.57); Allison Timlen of Ellicott City scored 10th (115.64). Ana Draovitch of the Skating Club of Northern Virginia won eighth in the novice ladies (95.44); Elkton's Viviana Mathis scored tenth (91.35).

© 2011 The Washington Post Company